What do Americans and Japanese think of Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un?

A passerby looks at a TV screen reporting news about North Korea's missile launch in Tokyo, Japan September 15, 2017.  REUTERS/Issei Kato     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1EB4F99740
Editor's note:

What do Americans and Japanese think of the upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as well as the broader nuclear issue? Shibley Telhami outlines findings from new polls in the United States and Japan. This piece originally appeared in Politico.

Commenting on the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, claimed that Kim begged for the summit “on his hands and knees.” This, however, does not appear to be the prevailing perception of the publics in the United States and Japan, according to two new coordinated polls.

Asked which factor they viewed to be most important in influencing North Korea’s stated willingness to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, 38 percent of Americans said it was a perceived tough line, including pressure and threats, taken by the Trump administration, while 29 percent said North Korea feels it has strong negotiating leverage after its success in developing and testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); 31 percent thought a bigger factor was international efforts, such as U.N. sanctions and Chinese pressure.

Among the Japanese, 39 percent credited U.N. sanctions and/or Chinese pressure, 31 percent felt the biggest factor was that North Korea felt stronger after successfully testing ICBMs, while 26 percent felt it was a perceived tough approach taken by the Trump administration.

As on most issues, Americans are deeply divided on this issue as well: While 61 percent of Republicans said it was Trump’s tough policy that brought North Korea to the table, only 16 percent of Democrats agreed; while 42 percent of Democrats said the most important factor was North Korea’s successful testing of ICBMs, only 13 percent of Republicans agreed.

The coordinated polls include one by the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, fielded by Nielsen Scarborough among a representative national U.S. sample of 1,215 adults, June 1-5, with a margin of error of 2.81 percent; and one conducted in Japan among a sample of 1,000 from May 18-June 3.

Both polls found that the American and Japanese publics are guardedly optimistic about the summit, but expectations are modest. And despite the optimism, the public perception in both countries is that the risk of a military confrontation between the United States and North Korea has not been significantly altered by the recent diplomatic progress.

Among Americans, 53 percent say that the diplomatic opportunities to negotiate denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula have increased, while 6 percent say they have decreased, and 39 percent say they remained the same. At the same time, only 13 percent of Americans, and 3 percent of Japanese, say recent diplomatic progress has made resolution of the nuclear issue more likely soon; 26 percent of Americans and 37 percent of Japanese say resolution of the nuclear issue has become more likely but only at some point in the future. On the other hand, 30 percent of Americans and 28 percent of Japanese say they expect progress on unrelated issues without resolution of the nuclear issue; and 15 percent of Americans and 12 percent of Japanese say nothing will be resolved.

As for expectations from the summit specifically, 22 percent of Americans and 6 percent of Japanese expect significant progress toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; 36 percent of Americans and 52 percent of Japanese expect progress on some issues but not on denuclearization; and 27 percent of Americans and 16 percent of Japanese expect the summit to fail. Americans are again deeply divided across partisan lines: While 39 percent of Republicans expect significant progress toward denuclearization, only 8 percent of Democrats expect the same; while 44 percent of Democrats expect the summit to fail, just 7 percent of Republicans expect the same.

This guarded optimism appears to have little impact on the assessment of the likelihood of military confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea. The number of Americans who say the risk of military confrontation is now higher (24 percent) is close to the number of those who say it is now lower (27); 38 percent say the risk is the same as it was a year ago. Among the Japanese about half (48 percent) say the risk has remained the same, while 16 percent say it is now lower, and 8 percent say it is now higher.

Do Americans and Japanese want to see normal relations with North Korea? Sixty-one percent of Americans and 52 percent of Japanese support normal relations only after North Korea completely gives up its nuclear weapons; only 13 percent of Americans and 11 percent of Japanese support normal relations with North Korea after North Korea agrees to denuclearize but before the agreement is implemented.

The planned summit may have influenced Americans’ perception of countries that pose the greatest threat to the U.S. and to world peace and security. Russia (50 percent) is seen as a greater threat to the U.S. than North Korea (44 percent), while China (30 percent) is seen as a greater threat to the U.S. than Iran (25 percent). North Korea is still seen as the top threat to international peace and security (53 percent), but that’s a decline from November 2017 when our poll showed 77 percent of Americans identified Pyongyang as one of the top two threats to world peace and security.

The seemingly promising diplomatic moves may have also affected Americans’ perception of threatening world leaders. Asked to identify the two leaders that pose the greatest threat to world peace and security, Americans named Kim Jong-un at 43 percent (compared with 62 percent last November), Vladimir Putin at 42 percent (up from 33 percent in November), Donald Trump at 26 percent (down from 31 percent in November), and ‘Iranian leaders’ at 12 percent (up from 10 percent in November). The partisan divide among Americans on this issue is particularly striking: Among Democrats, Trump topped the list of most threatening world leaders (48 percent) even above Putin (46 percent) and Kim (40 percent); while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (6 percent) topped Iranian leaders (2 percent) and Bashar Assad (2 percent). Among Republicans, Kim topped the list (50 percent) followed by Putin (39 percent) and Iranian leaders (25 percent); 3 percent identified Trump as a top threat.

If North Korea does not give up its nuclear weapons, neither Americans nor Japanese would want Japan or South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons: Only 21 percent of Americans and 11 percent of Japanese support Japanese acquisition of nuclear weapons; while 20 percent of Americans and 8 percent of Japanese support South Korea acquiring nukes, if North Korea keeps its own.

In the end, the public expectations of the summit seem to be limited, providing the president with an opportunity. Already, the planned summit appears to have has somewhat improved Americans’ perception of the president — but all of that improvement has come from his Republican base: Overall, 34 percent say their view of Trump has become more positive while 14 percent say their view has become more negative. Among Republicans, 65 percent say their views have become more positive, while only 2 percent say their view has become more negative. Among Democrats, 10 percent have become more positive, while 23 percent have become more negative. Among Independents the same number (17 percent) have become more positive as the number who have become more negative. The end result is that Trump appears to have consolidated the support of his base, while losing a few points with Democrats and maintaining the same level among Independents.

Still, the modest expectations about the summit give the president an opportunity to claim success even with limited gains. But the results also show that concerns about possible military confrontations with North Korea have not diminished and that short of a major breakthrough in the negotiations over denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, these concerns are not likely to go away.

There is one striking result from Japanese poll that does not bode well for Washington: In our joint poll last November, the Japanese identified North Korea as the greatest threat to world peace and security (55 percent), followed by the U.S. (43 percent) and China (34 percent). In the new poll, the U.S. is now seen as the greatest threat (52 percent) followed by China (34 percent), and North Korea (30 percent). This suggests that as the chance of diplomatic progress increases, perception of North Korea as a primary threat is diminishing – while the perception that Washington presents global threat to peace and security is increasing, perhaps bolstered by increasing uncertainty about American foreign policy, including on issues unrelated to North Korea.